Here is some basic advice to help your wedding day go smoothly, as well as to get the best possible photos of this one-time event, based on my years experience as a wedding photographer. If I say some things you don't want to hear please remember that my only purpose is to help you avoid mistakes I have seen others make. You can certainly choose to do things however you like, but I hope you will at least think about what I'm telling you here as you make your own wedding plans. I've tried to keep this in chronological order from the start of the day to the end of the reception.
1. Remember - it's YOUR wedding! The most important thing for you to remember is that this is YOUR special day. That means that if you want to do something in any particular manner you should be able to do so (assuming that it is possible). You will get lots of advice from many different people (including me!) about how you can make your day go better, things you don't want to forget, activities you should do, etc. But the bottom line is that this day is supposed to be about the two of you; it is possibly the most important day of your lives, and you should do whatever you want to make it yours.
This can be difficult. Well-wishing relatives and friends may give you all kinds of advice and suggestions that simply don't fit with how you visualize your wedding day. You should certainly consider what they tell you, but if you decide that you want to do things YOUR way then that's what you should do! Some of the best weddings I have photographed were those where the bride and groom had some really unique and creative ideas that allowed them to express their personalities in their ceremony and reception. Don't be afraid to try something different just because a friend or relative doesn't like your idea. It's YOUR day!!!
2. Assume that getting ready will take longer than you think. Time pressure is probably the single largest stress producer at any wedding, and this is where it usually begins. The bride is told that it will take 60-90 minutes for hair and makeup, and plans accordingly when scheduling her appointment. Then something goes wrong, and all of a sudden all of the careful plans and perfectly arranged timetables start to fall apart. When in doubt (and even when not in doubt), leave extra time! The worst that will happen is that you are ready a bit early and can sit and relax for a few minutes; maybe even have a glass of champagne with your bridesmaids!
3. The Dressing Room. At most weddings I think this is where some of the best candid photos of the day occur. You can literally feel the tension and excitement in the photos taken during this time. Every bride has her own "comfort zone" with when she wants a male photographer present during the dressing process and I will leave the room whenever you want me to, but I encourage you to let me take as many pictures of the "getting ready" process as you are comfortable with. Of course, I will never put any photos of you online that you do not want others to see.
4. Take as many of the formal photos before the ceremony as possible. Basically, when you take the pictures before the guests arrive and the chaos begins in earnest, you are able to create much better photographs. There are fewer distractions and there is much less time pressure. This means a less stressful experience and as I always tell brides and grooms when we meet, if there is anything you can do to lower the stress of your wedding day, DO IT! I understand the "tradition" of the groom not seeing the bride before she comes down the aisle, but the reality of the situation is that unless you have a minimum of 60-90 minutes between the end of the ceremony and the beginning of the reception you will almost certainly not get all of the posed photos that you would like.
5. For outdoor photos, bring some comfortable shoes. If we are going to be taking outdoor photos, and perhaps doing a bit of hiking around, you might want to wear different shoes than you are going to wear during the ceremony. There are a couple of reasons for this. First, doing a lot of walking over different terrain (grass, sand, etc.) can be very difficult while wearing 3-inch heels. You'll be a lot happier wearing shoes that are designed for outdoor use. Second, this can also be very hard on the shoes. If you've spent a lot of money on the "perfect shoes" for your wedding you don't want to damage them while taking your photos. Bring a pair of comfortable walking shoes. I've seen brides wear everything from nice white tennis shoes to fancy flip-flops that they decorated just for this purpose.
6. The Ring Exchange. This can be a very difficult part of the ceremony to photograph, because the bride and groom are usually not aware of how they are oriented relative to the guests (and the photographer), which makes it very difficult to see and photograph the actual exchange of rings. When the groom places the ring on the bride's finger, her hand is away from the guests and usually blocked from view by the bride's body and other hand. If you rotate slightly toward your guests everyone (including your photographer) will have a better view as the ring is placed on your partner's finger. Also, rather than grasping the wrist of your partner to aid in pushing the ring on, trying holding on from UNDER his/her hand instead, which will help keep you from blocking the shot with your hand. I like to practice this with the B&G before the ceremony so they understand just how it will work.
7. Lighting the Unity Candle. Like the ring exchange, this can be a difficult photo if it isn't rehearsed beforehand. How the candle is lit largely depends on where the candle is placed on the altar. If the candle is at the back of the altar, the tendency is for the B&G to light the candle turned away from their guests, giving the photographer a good look at their backs but little or no view of the candle or their faces. The best scenario for photos is to move the candle to the front of the altar and then walk to the BACK of the altar before lighting, so you are now facing toward your guests (and the camera!). Sometimes it isn't possible to light the candle from the back of the altar. In this case the bride and groom should separate and stand toward either side of the altar, so they are facing towards each other. The groom then lights with his left hand, and the bride with her right. Don't rush the lighting, take your time! This opens the B&G to the guests and makes a great photo opportunity, and is one of my favorite ceremony photos.
8. Walk, don't run, down the aisle! Many B&Gs will practically run down (up?) the aisle at the end of the ceremony. This makes it hard to get a good photo, and this is another photo you really should have. Take your time as you come down the aisle. Walk side by side, not with the groom leading the bride or vice versa. Wave to your guests; it makes for some great pictures!
9. Skip the receiving line. This is guaranteed to get me in trouble with some brides, or at least with some MOBs and MOGs (that's "mother of bride" and "mother of groom" in wedding-speak!). But please hear me out. Why do you want to make your guests spend a long time (sometimes over an hour) standing in line waiting to congratulate you? This is a major headache for not only the guests, but for the bride and groom and everyone else standing with them to greet the guests, which often includes the entire wedding party as well as both sets of parents. I have seen newlyweds spend the majority of their reception standing in a receiving line while the 200 guests slowly make their way through the line so they can spend maybe a minute talking with the happy couple. Do the math - if you have 100 guests and each spends just 30 seconds talking with the B&G that is 50 minutes. More guests and/or more time spent with each and you will be spending well over an hour in the line.
Also, a receiving line tends to be a photographer's nightmare, since it is generally only possible to get photos with the face of the bride and/or groom along with the backs of the people they are talking with, or of the guests' faces and the back of the head of the B&G. Here is an alternative that works very well - rather than make everyone (including yourself) stand in a long line, spend time during the reception (usually during the meal service) going from table to table and greeting your guests. This allows you to control how long you spend at each table, and to greet 8-10 people at a time rather than 1-2. Your guests will appreciate not having to stand in a long line waiting to talk with you! It also allows your photographer to get great candid photos as you interact with friends and family, and is not a bad way to get photos of literally everyone who attends your reception.
10. Be careful with your table decorations. You want to keep your table decorations/centerpieces low. Tall centerpieces make it very difficult to get good photos of the people at the table (and hopefully of the B&G as they greet each table) because they block the faces of people at the table from the perspective of someone standing near the table (such as your photographer). This is something that is rarely considered by the bride (or the caterer) when deciding on table decorations. Having balloons float 3-4 feet over the table or tall flower arrangements are popular centerpiece ideas, but they make getting good photographs of the guests very difficult. I will frequently ask a table to remove their centerpiece when I see the B&G approaching to allow a good photo, but sometimes it is difficult to move the centerpiece without damaging it. Calla lilies are beautiful flowers, but I did a recent wedding with 3 foot high Calla lily centerpieces that made some of the photos of the reception area look like they were taken in a jungle, and additionally made it very difficult to see many of the guests. When you plan your centerpieces try to get a feel for how they will look once people are actually sitting at the table, both from the perspective of those sitting at the table and that of someone standing at or near the table.
11. Dance so the photographer can see your face! During most of the dancing at the reception, the tendency is for everyone to face toward the center of the dance floor. This makes it very hard to get good photos of the faces of the dancers, unless I'm brave (or crazy) enough to move to center floor myself. I love good candid dancing photos, and work hard to make sure that I get them even if I don't get much cooperation from the dancers. If you could occasionally turn toward the camera while dancing it will really help your photos; unless you'd rather I get lots of photos of your back! This does NOT apply to the traditional dances such as the first dance and the father daughter dance; during those dances I will have no problem getting plenty of good photos, and you should completely ignore me.
12. Bouquet Toss and Garter Removal/Toss. Here are some other opportunities for great pictures that are often wasted by B&Gs who rush the process. Take your time and have some fun with these events! Make sure that all the eligible bachelors/bachelorettes are on the floor before starting. Decide ahead of time whether you want kids involved during the bouquet and garter toss. I always like to scout out the floor to see the best way to orient the thrower and catchers before each event, and to look for potential problems such as low-hanging lights or ceiling fans that might get in the way of the toss. Don't be afraid to repeat the toss if it doesn't go right the first time. Brides will frequently either throw the bouquet clear over the heads of the waiting women, or straight into the ceiling. Hey, it isn't that easy to throw something backwards over your head while facing the other direction! So if the toss doesn't work on the first attempt, just stop and call for a do over. Same with the garter toss. While most grooms want to shoot the garter like a rubber band, there really isn't enough stretch in the garter to allow for much distance. Much better to just toss it, either over the back or while facing the potential garter catchers.
13. Leaving the reception. At some longer receptions by the time the B&G are ready to leave most of the guests have already left, so there is no one on hand for a "goodbye photo". If you are planning a lengthy reception and want to have a picture of the two of you as you leave, it can be fun to do a faked shot. This involves telling the guests what you are doing, and getting them into position for the photo. Whether the photo is of the actual departure or is being done earlier while more guests are present, I usually do this photo in more or less the same way. I will have the guests come just outside of the reception venue, and put them in two parallel lines running out from the doors. This way as the B&G leave they will be walking between the lines formed by their friends and family, and it allows for wonderful photo opportunities. These days most venues don't allow rice, bird seed, flowers or anything else to be thrown during the departure. But there are alternatives that work well. Bubbles or sparklers are fun for the guests, and can help make some outstanding photos.
If this was a faked shot to allow more guests to be part of the photo, everyone heads back inside and the party goes on. If this is the actual departure by the B&G I will try to get some photos of the two of you with the getaway vehicle before you head off on your honeymoon!
14. Refer back to point number 1! It is your wedding day, so make it truly your own and have the time of your lives!